LPGA Tour rookies reflect on season filled with roller coaster of emotions

Jeongeun Lee6 enters the CME Group Tour Championship as the most successful LPGA rookie this season, winning the U.S. Women's Open and securing the 2019 Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

NAPLES, Fla. -- Missed cut. Another missed cut. And another missed cut.

It was the end of August, and LPGA rookie Cheyenne Knight, 22, was rethinking everything. After bogeying the final two holes to miss the cut at the Cambia Portland Classic, she knew that her LPGA eligibility would be in jeopardy. And she knew that she would have to shift her mindset and "play Cheyenne Knight golf" if she wanted to stay on the LPGA Tour.

Ever since she was 9 years old, she had wanted to play on the LPGA Tour. And after a solid college career at Alabama, Knight earned her LPGA card for the 2019 season. Everything was lining up exactly as she imagined. Until she realized that being a rookie on the LPGA Tour is hard. It's not just hard, it's emotionally draining and physically taxing. And it's definitely not like playing in college.

Nearly one month after missing three consecutive cuts, Knight turned it all around. With her status in jeopardy, Knight went back to the basics and won the Volunteers of America Classic on Oct. 6 in The Colony, Texas, with an 18-under 266. Before Texas, Knight was 120th on the money list with $71,346 and ranked 114th in the Race to the CME Globe. The victory earned her $195,000 and vaulted Knight into the top 60 of the Race to the CME Globe.

"After Portland, honestly, I was depressed. I wasn't sure that I could be on this emotional roller coaster that is professional golf," Knight said. "I'm a big believer in my faith, and I was like, 'Why am I going through this?' I had three weeks off after Portland, and I thought if I had to go back to LPGA Q-series, that's fine, but I needed to try to find momentum. And I found something in Indianapolis [at the Indy Women in Tech Championship] before Texas. Then once I got to Texas, I was strong mentally. I had nothing to lose. I was just trying to play."

Knight realizes she's not alone in the emotional roller coaster of being a rookie on tour, especially as her first season comes to an end. Out of the 60 top LPGA players in the running for this week's CME Group Tour Championship and the $1.5 million prize, there are only four rookies competing at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Florida. Knight leads the rookie group after the first round, tied for 22nd at 1-under 71.

For Knight and fellow rookies Jeongeun Lee6, Jennifer Kupcho and Kristen Gillman, their first year on the LPGA Tour has been riddled with the highest highs and the lowest lows and everything in between.

For Lee6, the LPGA was a big transition from her time on the LPGA of Korea Tour (KLPGA), where she had six career victories, including two in 2018. Rather than playing only in South Korea, Lee6 learned what it felt like to play all across the globe week in and week out. After a strong start to her rookie season, Lee6 won the U.S. Women's Open -- her first major and first victory on the LPGA Tour. But it wasn't until afterward that Lee6 began to struggle both on and off the course.

"I didn't really physically and mentally prepare consistently all the time," Lee6 said. "After winning the tournament, I started to feel a little bit more exhausted and my scores weren't that consistent. I played so many tournaments. But for next year, I'm just going to manage myself to save some energy and prepare for the next tournament."

Playing in 24 of the 32 official LPGA Tour events this year spanning 15 states and 12 countries, Lee6 entered the final tournament of 2019 with a series of accolades to her name: Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year, No. 2 Rolex Player of the Year and No. 2 on the official money. After Thursday's opening round, Lee6 sits at even par in a tie for 33rd.

Yet despite all of these accolades, Lee6 admits to even the most mundane difficulties in transitioning from the KLPGA to the LPGA as a rookie.

"When I play in the KLPGA, like usually in the pro-am you can just ride a cart. You can just ride a cart and practice. But in the LPGA, you have to walk no matter what, even during the pro-am, and so that was the hardest thing I ever experienced," Lee6 said. "Next year, I just think I need to focus on like how I should make my condition to be stable."

After deferring her LPGA rookie eligibility one year to finish out her final college season at Wake Forest, Kupcho started her rookie season in May. And in the few short months on tour, Kupcho found consistency in her game while learning what it means to truly be a professional athlete. She stands tied in 33rd with Lee6 and five others after the first round of the CME Group Tour Championship.

Before going pro, Kupcho found great success in her amateur career. Kupcho won the inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur tournament in April. In 2018, she won the 2018 NCAA individual championship title. In total, Kupcho was the top-ranked women's amateur golfer in the world for 34 weeks.

Like Lee6, Kupcho wasn't prepared for the physically draining aspect of playing week in and week out. But not only did she experience the wear on her body, she experienced the realities of not being on a college team anymore and being completely alone. No longer was she riding in the van with her teammates to tournaments. Now she was renting cars alone. Paying for hotels alone. Doing everything alone.

"You are out here on your own. So you need to be able to call people and ask them to help you," Kupcho said. "Like renting cars. I've never rented a car in my life. Show up, try to rent a car? I didn't even know how to do that. So it's all just a learning experience."

Above all else, when it comes to the past few months, Kupcho learned that golf is just a game. Echoing the sentiments of Knight, Kupcho knows that she has evolved as a golfer and person both on and off the course.

"I'm pretty hard on myself. I think I've definitely changed throughout the year. I started out not taking the advice to not overwork myself and to just relax. But it's hard," Kupcho said. "And with that advice, it definitely makes life a lot more enjoyable before and after golf."

For all of the rookies playing in this week's LPGA finale, the biggest consensus is to not drain themselves emotionally or physically next year.

"What I've learned most out here is just you kind of can't focus too much on golf because then it's going to be miserable out here and just always worrying about your score and your place and all of that," Gillman said.

Hailing from University of Alabama, Gillman had six career starts on the LPGA Tour as an amateur. When it came time to actually play as a pro, she felt she knew what to expect. It wasn't until she had to start paying for her own hotels and finding a right caddie that she felt the immediate effects of rookie life.

"At the beginning of the year, I was struggling to find some caddies. And sometimes, I would rather just have my pushcart out there and be pushing," Gillman said. "And then there's the aspect of having everything paid for in college and coming out here and you're like, 'Oh, I have to stay in a hotel and that's going to cost me $1,000 this week. That's great.'"

Leaning on the other rookies, Gillman found solidarity and relief in knowing that everyone was going through the same hurdles. And just like Knight, Lee6 and Kupcho, Gillman realized that her time on the LPGA Tour would be a constant roller coaster of emotional pain, physical struggles, financial burdens and, most important, learning lessons.

"Go out there and just try to whenever you have the opportunity, just try to take as much of it as you can and just go out there and play well. I've learned to just go out there and have fun. That's usually whenever you play best, when you're relaxed and you don't try to analyze everything." Gillman said. "It'll make things easier as the season goes on."